PITTSFIELD -- The City Council’s Finance Committee met for a brief, amicable session this week with the School Committee to receive a mid-year update on the school budget.
The joint meeting was businesslike, reflecting a level of easy cooperation absent during a tense lead-up to an initial review session last March. The visiting councilors indicated, in fact, that they’d had some of their questions answered prior to the meeting by Assistant Superintendent for Finance Kristen C. Behnke.
After Behnke gave a presentation on the pace of school spending through Dec. 31 -- with her projections to the end of the school year -- councilors asked primarily to have figures or the purpose of some accounts clarified.
Finance Committee members, councilors Melissa Mazzeo, Barry Clairmont, Christopher Connell and Kathleen Amuso attended a regular meeting of the committee to hear the presentation.
Such meetings, which the council subcommittee proposed last year as a way to familiarize themselves with the school budget before being asked to vote on the school budgets in June, at first sparked disagreements over school budgeting practices and whether some accounts were overbudgeted and should be reduced.
Clairmont had raised several points last year about budgeting practices, but this time said his questions had been answered prior to the meeting by Behnke. However, he asked her to repeat her explanations for the public’s benefit.
In some accounts, she said, there is projected to be a deficit in June, while others are likely to show a surplus. Behnke said some accounts -- such as for teachers -- can be difficult to project because of the constantly changing dynamics of raises for education credits earned and employees leaving and being replaced. There are about 600 teachers in the Pittsfield system.
Behnke said the heating season also has been a difficult one to predict, with both warm and frigid weather and the aging and inefficient heating systems in some schools. She said her projection now is for a $90,000 surplus in the fuel account, but that could change significantly.
Special education costs can be "particularly volatile," she said, as a few students with significant needs could move into the city and require expensive services.
A point of contention last year was the amounts in the school budget that some councilors thought appeared to amount to overbudgeting. At its last city budget session in June, the council, in fact, cut $200,000 from the school request after Clairmont argued that the fuel account and some rollover accounts seemed much higher than required for the annual budget.
School officials countered that, unlike the council, the committee cannot appropriate money to cover funding shortfalls and must budget conservatively for fuel, special needs instruction or other hard-to-estimate costs, including the level of state aid.
Both boards have seen turnover in 2014. There is a longtime School Committee member, Amuso, on the council, and four new School Committee members -- all elected on Nov. 5. Previously this year, these annual joint budget sessions were discussed favorably at meetings of both boards with the idea of making them a tradition.
The committee also plans to meet with the council committee at City Hall later in the fiscal year.
Under the city charter, the school administration and School Committee prepare the school budget and the committee controls how the amount allocated is spent. However, the mayor and council must approve the bottom line figure in June.
School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon said following the joint meeting there was a spirit of cooperation. She thanked the councilors for attending and added that the "lines of communication were open here."
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